An Interview with Clay S. Jenkinson
A Sunday afternoon with the Director of the Dakota Institute
of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation
and the author of
The Character of Meriwether Lewis:
Explorer in the Wilderness
This interview was conducted in November of 2011, a few days
prior to the official publication date of the book.
Q. What does the S. stand for?
Straus. My mother’s maiden name. It’s the part of my name that I am most proud of. My grandparents Dick and Rhoda Straus were dairy farmers in Minnesota. They milked sixteen head, mostly Holsteins. They were quiet productive family farmers in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, who never called attention to themselves, paid their bills, never borrowed money, produced organic food, abided by all laws, and gave more to others than to themselves. I have portraits of them, photographs I took in the 1970s, on the wall of the entrance of my home in Bismarck.Q: What is the basic premise of this book?
I try to do two things. First, I try to differentiate Meriwether Lewis from William Clark. I do not see them as the twins of the highway signs, or the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the expedition. In my view, Stephen Ambrose was wrong when he said they shared “the best friendship in American history.” Their friendship was a very rich and satisfying one, but it was not without the inevitable tensions of co-leading a 28-month camping trip. You try it! I believe Lewis and Clark were very different men who brought very different skills to the expedition and responded to its challenges and satisfactions in very different ways. And in particular, they led very different lives after they returned from the wilderness in September 1806. So that is the main thing. Second, I believe that Lewis’s post-expedition spiral into chaos and early death was related to both his basic character (fractured) and his experiences in the American wilderness. I try to read the journals of the expedition with fresh eyes in search of what they reveal about Lewis. I try not to read his breakdown and demise back into the journals (though that is a serious temptation), but to let the journals and letters tell us who he was and what went wrong.
I suppose I am trying like everyone else to determine what went so terribly wrong for Lewis. I am not interested in his apparent suicide per se, though it naturally takes up a fair amount of my book. I am interested in what transpired in the course of his life that lured him into the heart of the American heart of darkness and then challenged his basic sense of identity once he was there, and made it impossible for him to re-enter American life in anything like a normal and productive way. I am not particularly interested in the moment he apparently put a gun to his head in 1809, but the train of events that led him to put that gun to his head, beginning with his childhood, but concentrating on the expedition itself.
My goal is to tease out a newer, fuller, more nuanced, less tidy, more problematic Meriwether Lewis, using the journal documents as the basis of my analysis.
My goal is to appreciate Lewis, to celebrate him, to champion him, to explore him, to deconstruct him, to tease out something of the mystery at the core of his life and work, if possible.
My basic premise is that the best decision Lewis ever made was to invite Clark to be his co-captain, that when Clark was nearby but not too close Lewis was outstanding, productive, eloquent, and masterful, but that when the captains (and friends) were separated for more than a few miles or more than a few hours things started to go wrong for Lewis. I spend a large amount of time examining their time apart, both because it puts Lewis in relief, and because I believe it validates my thesis that Lewis was not best suited to be alone for very long, and that all the things that went wrong in Lewis’s life occurred when Clark was somewhere else.
Q: Who or what has influenced your writing?
The main influences on me in the Lewis and Clark world have been James Ronda, whose Lewis and Clark Among the Indians remains the seminal LC book of our time, and David Nicandri, who is the pioneer of the next generation of Lewis and Clark books. His River of Promise: Lewis and Clark on the Columbia was published in 2010.
The Oregon writer Barry Lopez gave me the greatest insight I have ever heard about Meriwether Lewis, and it became one of the foundations of my book.
More generally, my life as a writer (if I can really claim that descriptor) was set by two individuals: Mike Jacobs, now the editor-publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, and Professor Thomas Clayton of the University of Minnesota. Jacobs is a better writer than I am. Clayton was the kind of professor you dream of having: demanding, brilliant beyond description, precise, witty, and sensuous about the Renaissance.
I regard myself not so much as an historian as a humanities scholar. I am not interested (much) in writing straight history, e.g., a narrative account of the Russo-Japanese War. I want always to wrestle with the larger questions of why humans behave as they do, how they self-defeat and self-destruct, how the complexities of questions bedevil any attempt to reduce them to narrative tidiness, how any sense of why things happen as they happen is radically inadequate, how the story we see depends on the lens we wear, how where we stand depends on where we sit, and how history is never settled, never finished, never definitive. I like to look at the journals as texts rather than as a mine from which a tidy narrative can be “constructed.” All my degrees are in English not history. I love Keats’ “negative capability,” and I distrust any sense that humans can really know anything that matters. That humanities emphasis comes from another mentor, the late great Everett Albers, the executive director of the North Dakota Humanities Council. He never wrote anything himself, but he taught me what I know about the waywardness of the human endeavor, individual, corporate, and civilizational.
Q: Who is this book for?
It’s a book for anyone who is interested in Lewis and Clark, in the exploration and peopling of the American West, in the fractured lives of people of great capacity or genius, in white-Indian relations. It is not a biography of Meriwether Lewis. If you want that, Undaunted Courage or Richard Dillon’s Meriwether Lewis are your best bet. Nor is it a full narrative account of the expedition. I don’t tell the story from the moment the expedition left St. Charles on May 14, 1804, until it returned on September 23, 1806. It helps if you know something about the expedition before you read my book, but it’s not really required. In fact, all you need to know can be found on Wikipedia, but who wouldn’t want to read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage?
The Character of Meriwether Lewis is not an academic book. It’s not a specialists’ book. It’s a book written for people who love this episode in American history and who are puzzled about the life, character, achievement, and violent death of Meriwether Lewis.
Q: How sure are you that Meriwether Lewis committed suicide?
If you presented the facts as carefully and objectively as possible to an audience of 1000 rational people from Jupiter, 995, at the very least, would conclude that he committed suicide on October 11, 1809. The evidence for suicide is overwhelming, and there is no evidence of any sort that he was murdered. It is, of course, possible that Lewis was murdered. There were no known eyewitnesses, and there are enough puzzles and inconsistencies in the testimony we have to require us to keep open minds. The best that can be said is that, in spite of the utter dearth of evidence, murder cannot be ruled out. That is the position staked out by my friend John Guice, the “dean” of the murder theorists.
I devote two chapters to Lewis’s suicide. In the first one, I try to lay out the details of the last month of his life as carefully and objectively as possible, withholding as long as possible any judgment about the two bullets that entered his body in the early morning hours of October 11. My goal is that everyone will agree that this chapter sets out the facts fairly and comprehensively, and that this chapter is equally useful to the suicidists (as I call them) and the murderists. We’ll see about that.
The second chapter on Lewis’s suicide is simply called “Why?” It’s the longest chapter in the book. My view is that even if it could be proved that Lewis was murdered, there was still some fundamental fracture in his soul and that he was mentally disturbed at the time of his death. My chapter attempts to probe that, by looking at each of the diagnoses that Lewis scholars and others have put forward — Aspergers, manic depression, homosexuality, asexuality, alcoholism, malarial toxicity, bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress syndrome, affair of honor, the Buzz Aldrin syndrome, etc.
I’d like to think my final chapter, “Why?,” gets as close to understanding Lewis as we are going to get without the discovery of new evidence.
Readers will, of course, decide.
Q: Your book automatically gives short shrift to Clark. Why?
Well, it’s a book about Meriwether Lewis. Clark comes up on nearly every page and I think my repeated attempts to differentiate the basic characters of the two captains constitute one of the best things about this book. So I guess I reject your thesis. You cannot put Lewis into full relief until you compare him to Clark, particularly in the years following the expedition, when their once seemingly parallel lives begin to diverge dramatically.
I admire Clark, like him, respect him, and think he was absolutely essential to the success of the expedition.
But I find Clark dramatically less interesting than Lewis. There is no particularly mystery about Clark. The only thing that a Clark scholar has to try to wrestle to the ground is how a man of such extraordinary decency, fairness, and humanity, could be so conventionally disappointing in his relation to his slaves, particularly York. It is also worth trying to sort out how a man who really seems to have liked Indians could do so much to dispossess them, but this actually seems more perplexing than it is. With Clark you essentially see what you get and get what you see. With Lewis that is seldom the case.
I’m a Lewis guy. The world is filled with Clark people, believe me. It’s a little annoying to see so many people prefer Clark because he is normal and to shrink back from Lewis, because he is strange and unconventional. At any rate, Clark is very well represented by William Foley and Landon Jones, and I have not felt there is much I could add to their profiles, if anything.
My closest friends who have read this book wound up liking Clark even more after reading my words. So I may inadvertently have worsened the current Clark-up, Lewis-down problem. One of my best friends said she liked my book very much but not Lewis very much at all.
Q: What is your favorite part of the book?
That depends on what kind of mood I am in. I think the most important part of the book is the chapter on Lewis and Silence. I think my analysis of Lewis’s propensity to go silent at inopportune times actually opens new territory and brings important insights to the problem of Lewis. If I were forced to contribute just one chapter to Lewis and Clark studies and no other, that would be the one.
But my favorite part of the book is the last 25 pages. It is there that I try to unlock the mystery of Lewis with all of my might. It’s when I feel closest to Lewis and closest to the heart of the experience he sought in the wilderness. The problem is that by then nobody will still be reading!!! Never write a long book. The ancient poet Callimachus said, mega biblion mega kakon. A big book is a big bother.
Q: How did you write this book?
In sickness and in health, on good days and on bad. What I set out to do is not what I wound up doing. My plan was simply to revise a monograph I wrote about the character of Meriwether Lewis ten years ago. That was all that was required.
I’m 56 years old now. I have come to realize that I don’t have unlimited time left in my career. When I started in on the revision, I decided to start all over and not use more than a handful of sentences from the old book. This was a costly decision in some ways, and yet it was one of the best intellectual decisions I have ever made. At some point in your life, particularly when you start to come to terms with your mortality, you have to commit yourself to your main piece of work, the work for which you wish to be remembered (if you are remembered at all). I knew that I was not yet satisfied that I understood Meriwether Lewis, but that I had a lot to say about him that I had never committed to paper. So I decided to back up and start over and go to the mat and try to say what I had to say about Lewis and not settle for a treatment or an extended essay, but to try to do the best scholarly work of my life.
I started by writing a chapter about Lewis, Clark, the mosquito, and the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. I think the story I get to tell in that chapter is hilarious, ironic, absurd; that it shows how much can pivot on things we never tend to think about. From there I moved to what became the introductory chapter in which I try to prove that Lewis regarded himself as the sole commander and the sole explorer of the expedition, and that when the great discovery moments of the expedition came, he invariably found a way to strike out ahead of the rest, particularly Clark, so that he could be the “first civilized man….” I discovered this pattern a number of years ago and, so far as I know, nobody has ever really concentrated on this dynamic before. If I am right about this, it puts the friendship in an entirely new light and explains some passages that would otherwise be hard to make sense of.
Then I wrote the chapter on silence, and after that the Last Journey chapter and the “Why?” chapter.
Finally, I wrote about birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries, partly to relieve the tension and just write something fun, but also to find another way to illuminate the differences between Lewis and Clark.
It took about a year to write the book. For about half that time I wrote eight to ten hours a day. Then as 2011 began, I got serious. By April I was sitting in the same desk 14-17 hours a day. There is something really amazing when that moment comes. The book has taken over your life. You eat only to banish hunger, sleep only to be able to keep going, and you start to live in your book. There are days when you never shower, never make a phone call, never get up from the table. You get that oleaginous sheen that you get when you fly for 15 straight hours. You actually dream about the book or things in the book and you wake up at 2:30 a.m. with a thought about a sentence you wrote or should write. The book is the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you think about as you drift off to sleep.
Q: What kind of man was Lewis?
High strung. Self-pushing and self-punishing. So tightly bound to the success of his “darling project” that he let it destabilize him. He was disciplined—and yet he did not keep a regular journal. He was a magnificent writer—when the switch was on. He had the impulse to put himself out beyond his comfort level, to get to the far edge of the civilizational enterprise, to test himself against Nature, the Other, Himself, the Wilderness, Enchantment, and (to his eternal credit) he refused to shrug off what he discovered. There is a kind of genius in Lewis, but it is a fractured and troubled and ultimately self-destructive genius. He was marginal in some essential way. I’m not quite sure why or how, but he never married, even though he tried and he was a national hero at some level. It’s a mystery.
Q: What is your goal in this book?
It’s simple, but inordinately ambitious and I suppose pretentious. I would like this book to become prolegomena to all future Lewis and Clark (or at least Lewis) studies. Period. Not likely, of course, but we don’t get what we don’t aim for. I’d like everyone, even those who disagree with this book, to say, “You have to read this book. You won’t agree with all that this guy says, but even when you disagree you will understand Lewis and Clark better for having read this book.”
Unlikely, but a lovely illusion, and what is life without illusion? Without illusion, no one would ever write a book.
I would hope that this book puts to rest some of the murder-suicide debate. There will always be some who maintain that Lewis was murdered, merely because they want the story to come out that way, but I think 500 years from now there will be virtually no murderists. My goal is to present the case as thoughtfully and fairly as possible, playfully, and to increase the number of people who can accept that he committed suicide.
I’d like to get on the Jon Stewart Show.
Q: You are known for your work on Jefferson. Where is he in all of this?
There is probably too much Jefferson in this book. But here’s how I see it. The journey was Jefferson’s brainchild. Lewis was Jefferson’s protégé, secretary, aide de camp and (in some respects) surrogate son. Lewis carried a great deal of Jeffersonian baggage with him into the wilderness and he was trying to apply Jefferson’s worldview and western development template throughout the journey. Jefferson purchased Louisiana. Jefferson wrote the famous instructions to Lewis. It was for Jefferson (primarily) that Lewis was writing the book. And that is primarily why Lewis could not write the book.
More particularly, I think Lewis and Clark studies have suffered from self-referentiality. Along with my friend David Nicandri I believe that we cannot really understand Lewis and Clark unless we understand the early national period of the United States, the travels of Zebulon Pike, James Cook, Alexander von Humboldt, Alexander Mackenzie, and others; and that the self-satisfied decontextualized world of Lewis and Clark suffers from a kind provincialism. The more we connect Lewis and Clark to the larger and larger concentricities of what might be called the Europeanization of North America, the better off we are. Jefferson connects many strands of the Lewis and Clark story, and connects that story to the larger meaning of the American Revolution.
Besides, I love Jefferson and a writer gets to include that which pleases him or her, so long as it is not merely adventitious.
Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
I started in on it in August 2010, and finished it on May 15, 2011, the day before my mother and daughter and I sailed for England on the Queen Mary II.
But I have been thinking about Lewis for more than thirty years, sometimes intensely. I have traveled the entire Lewis & Clark Trail, by car, in boats, in canoes and kayaks, on foot, in light aircraft, etc. This is not like taking on something entirely new (Disraeli or the War of 1812) and then working up some knowledge about it. I have lived Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark for most of my adult life.
Q: Is there anything you wish you could revise?
Of course. A book never really ends, you just finally agree to put a gun to its head and kill it off. In the past two months I have read through the manuscript carefully three or four times for different editorial purposes. I found a few passages I would like to rewrite or clarify. That’s inevitable, I suppose. There is one omission in the birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays chapter that is not particularly important, but I didn’t discover it until too late. If there is a second edition I will add a couple of paragraphs on that score. Meanwhile, I hope nobody notices.
As this book went to press, there was a rumor out of Montana that a local landowner near Upper Portage Camp may have “discovered” what’s left of the iron-framed boat, the Experiment. I have a close friend who urged me to wait until it is (or is not) authenticated. I’m frankly very skeptical about the discovery. But we’ll see. I had written about the whereabouts of the iron frame in the book, and my argument was that Lewis surely dug it up on the return journey because the expedition was bankrupt and the iron was like an American Express Platinum card as they neared the Mandan and Hidatsa, those wealthy but metal-starved earthlodge peoples in central North Dakota. By this time next year I may be shown to have been wrong about the boat. Even so, I think my argument that the most likely scenario (since the journals are silent) is that Lewis retrieved the boat and that it was either given to the Mandan and Hidatsa, sold to them in trade for necessities and artifacts for Jefferson, or given to Charbonneau along with the expedition’s blacksmith kit on or about August 17, 1806. If I prove to be wrong, readers will understand that my analysis occurred before the “find” was authenticated.
Q: How do you write?
It’s not very glamorous. I write on my laptop computer. Never with a pen. I print drafts as I go along and then read them on airplanes, in bars and restaurants, in coffee shops, etc., and write corrections and queries in the margins. I waste a lot of paper in printing drafts, almost day by day. I write fast, at least when I know what I am talking about. In the course of a day of writing, I’ll look into twenty or thirty books for information or quotations and by the end of the day my work space will be strewn with books, some half open, some with pens in as placeholders, some dog-eared. It’s a mess.
The best advice I ever got about writing was from a friend of mine named Warren Lerude. “Always park on a hill.” In other words, at the end of the day, start a paragraph or even a sentence and just quit right in the middle. Then, when you return the following day, you have that sentence to complete. This is relatively easy to do, and it creates momentum. The worst thing about writing is the blank sheet of paper (or blank screen) before you. Parking on a hill solves that problem. I know this sounds sort of silly, but it works.
The other thing I do is not get up every time there is some piece of information I need. If you do that, all you will do is get up and wander through your library. So when I come to something I don’t know (the date of a boat accident, the name of that Shoshone woman, the year Jefferson did something) I just write X. “The accident occurred on May X [maybe it was June], 1805 [check] and after that the captains decided never to be on shore at the same time [make sure of the quotation here].” That sort of thing. Then, about once every two hours, I get up and start filling in the Xs. It is a form of writing discipline, and it makes sure you keep moving forward. Getting up is tempting, but you often lose the train of the argument while you search for something that is really not important to the thesis you are pursuing.
I don’t like to write much, though at some point in every day and a number of times per month I get into the zone and then (and only then) I think, “I’m actually a WRITER.” But I love to have written. I love to print out the 3000 words I wrote on a Tuesday and then go somewhere to sip a beer or two while reading over what I wrote and planning additions, corrections, elaborations, etc.
Q: Some people say that everything has already been said about Lewis & Clark.
I disagree entirely. With the successful completion of Gary Moulton’s authoritative edition of the journals of Lewis and Clark, we all need to read every journal entry by every journal keeper, and all the ancillary documents, with the freshest eyes we can possibly bring to the project. It would be best if we could all be zapped by that device Will Smith carries around in the Men in Black movies. Then we could look at Lewis and Clark with fresh eyes, innocent eyes. One of my deepest yearnings is to read Hamlet again but as if for the first time.
Each generation has to reinterpret everything. The idea that everything could be said about the French Revolution or the life of Julius Caesar is patently ludicrous. Even if we never discover a single new Lewis and Clark document, we will need new books and articles for each new generation of Americans.
My book says a great deal about Lewis and Clark that has never been said before. It may be baloney and idiocy, but it is new. I did not try to write anything outrageous or new or unique, by the way. I am not one of those authors who say crazy things not because they believe them but because they want to get attention or say something new and original, no matter what the cost. I wrote precisely what I think about Meriwether Lewis, and so far as I know there is nothing I argue in the book that I do not actually believe to be the truth. I’m sure there are some things I overstate, but I do so not to get attention but rather because I am caught up in the argument I am making. When I read over the manuscript a month ago I found a few things that seemed possibly to be overstated. For example, I argue that even as late as Fort Clatsop it is not clear that Lewis could have named every man (and woman) who was participating in the expedition. I do think that might be true. But when I read the manuscript for the last time before it went to print, I thought, well, maybe that’s a whopper. I nearly qualified the statement or withdrew it, but then I stepped back to think about it and decided I really thought it true. So I kept it.
I wonder how many Lewis and Clark scholars have read all thirteen volumes of the University of Nebraska edition of Lewis and Clark. I know I haven’t. I think we should all stop, take a deep breath, and read the journals through, and then read Donald Jackson’s Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and then James Holmberg’s collection of the Clark letters. And Pike, Mackenzie, Freeman and Dunbar, Cook, Humboldt, Park, etc. And then and only then start writing about Lewis and Clark.
Q: What role do Indians play in your book?
Not much in this book. Lewis didn’t like Indians very much, I think. He found them annoying. I write extensively about his relations with Indians at Fort Mandan in the chapter called “Meriwether Lewis’s Bad Day,” and again in the chapter on his crucial meeting with the Shoshone in August 1805. I write a good deal about the captains and Sacagawea. I’m extremely interested in white-Indian relations and the insights that James Ronda opened up in Lewis and Clark studies. But my focus in this book is Lewis, and particularly Lewis’s sense of himself, so there is not much room to wander into that area of fascination.
Q: You are well known for your love of North Dakota.
Indeed. That doesn’t have much to do with this book, but I love North Dakota with all my heart and never plan to leave, though there are things about this place at this time that are hard on the human spirit. I did write three chapters that are primarily about Lewis and Clark in North Dakota, not because the events I analyze happened in North Dakota, but rather because really important things happened in North Dakota that reveal Lewis’s character. They are: “Meriwether Lewis’s Bad Day,” “Damn You: Lewis and Clark at the Confluence,” and “Getting There First.” One of the three original maps in the book is of the region around Fort Mandan. Lewis and Clark spent more time in North Dakota than in any other state, and their relations with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians were the most successful and ethnographically interesting of all their relations with Indians. Lewis was shot in the buttocks in North Dakota. Even more to the point, on April 7, 1805, as the expedition left Fort Mandan, Lewis believed that he was walking off the map of the known world. I spend a good deal of time writing about that moment and how Lewis saw it.
Q: Have you said what you have to say about Lewis and Clark now?
Not altogether. I have said what I want to say about Lewis. I could say more, of course, and it would be fun to write a short (200 page) biography of Lewis, but that is well into the future, I think.
I want to write a book whose working title is Getting Noticed on the Lewis and Clark Trail. It would explore how things find their way into the journals, and how that represents or distorts the picture of what actually happened on the expedition. That book would also examine what might be called the dynamics of the journals—how they were written, when, under what circumstances, based on what raw materials, and for what intended audience, if any.
I’d like to write a short book called The Burden of Being Clark.
And I’d like to try to write a cultural studies treatment of Sacagawea. There is no single adequate book on Sacagawea, and a great deal of mythology and even nonsense circulates about her. I’d like to pare it down to what we know first, and then to move out from that core.
I’m also very much interested in a long analysis of the ways in which Nicholas Biddle’s paraphrase narrative of the expedition (1814) was crafted and how it has influenced the discourse.
But if I never write another sentence about Lewis and Clark, I will be content with the book that I have now finally finished.
What is next for you?
I’m writing two books about North Dakota. One is about the future of North Dakota, as a kind of inventory and projection of North Dakota as it stumbles its way into the twenty-first century. The other is a novel about white-Indian relations. I should finish at least one of those books early in 2012.
I’m also wanting to return to a big book on Thomas Jefferson that I have been working on on and off for many years. It’s called The Paradox of Thomas Jefferson. The good news is that this book has given me a new confidence, and I hope to spend that capital in finishing what I hope will be a very big book on Jefferson, who is my primary hero in this sublunary world, as Mr. Lewis puts it.
I’m working on a couple of documentary films, one on the late North Dakotan Eric Sevareid. I want to do a series of daylong video interviews with 100 North Dakotans called The Dakota Interviews.
And I’d like to write a book on Theodore Roosevelt’s intellectual life. I’m well underway with a new edition of Hermann Hagedorn’s book Roosevelt in the Bad Lands.
And much more.
Q: How many books have you written?
This is, I think, my eighth or ninth book. But that is not really a useful statistic. This is without question the most ambitious book I have written, the most serious, the longest, and the one that I poured my soul into as never before into anything. If I could only be judged for one intellectual construct, this would be it, without question. This is, I believe, a major book. Even if everyone else disagrees, in this book I got to say what I wanted to say about a very important subject, and I did not have to hold back or conform to someone else’s idea of what it should be or what it should say. In other words, I got to write precisely the book I wanted to write about Meriwether Lewis, and if the world rejects my views, it will not be because I did not articulate them in their fullness.
My main books are:
The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness.
A Free and Hardy Life: Theodore Roosevelt’s Sojourn in the American West.
Becoming Jefferson’s People: Re-Inventing the American Republic in the Twenty-First Century.
A Vast and Open Plain: The Writings of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in North Dakota.
Message on the Wind: A Spiritual Odyssey on the Northern Plains.
What is it like to write a book?
Agony and ecstasy. I have a different feeling about this book than about my previous books. First, it is a much more ambitious and serious book than the others, not that they weren’t those things too. Second, since I moved home to North Dakota six years ago, I have actually become a writer, as opposed to someone who does a number of things, among which is writing. I honestly consider myself a writer now. When people on airplanes ask me what I do, I used to say, “Oh, I’m a humanities scholar, I do this and that and X and Y and Z.” Now, I gulp a little and say, “I’m a writer.” And I do so without any internal blushing.
Writing a book is very hard work. I don’t know why anyone does it, frankly. It’s unbelievably lonely. It consumes you. It distances you from your friends, your family, from community, from life. People don’t read much any more, and your best friends cannot be counted on to buy your book, your baby, your brainchild, much less read it. Then there are the critics who are disposed, often pre-disposed, to dislike what you have done or to wonder why you didn’t write the book they would have written, which — by the way — they didn’t!
I cannot wait to hold my book in my hands, to feel the heft of it, to turn it over and just look at all those words displayed in such orderliness. (If they only knew!). I cannot wait to do book signings, to meet people who have curiosity about Lewis and Clark, to be able to say with pride, “this is a book I am very proud of.”
There are many things that humans do that are actually very hard to do: Run marathons. Climb tall mountains. Play the clarinet. Design a house. Cook world class meals. Make beautiful pottery. Writing a book is one of those things. In my own hierarchy it is one of the very best things, the very most impressive things, that humans can achieve. My heroes are Erasmus, Jefferson, John Donne, Thoreau, Dr. Johnson, John Milton, Charles Dickens, Roosevelt: writers. Sometimes I find myself in the shower or in the taxi or in the hotel bar thinking, “Hey, I wrote a book.” I wrote a book, and it is not a throwaway book, and there was no ghostwriter (Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Stewart, Mrs. Clinton). Nobody helped me. I just sat down and did it. I never thought I would be the kind of man who would write a big book. My freshman English teacher Agnes Oxton gave me Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac as my high school graduation gift. She wrote in it, “Maybe some day you will write a book.” That paperback, which probably cost her $4.50, is one of my greatest treasures. I have written a number of books now but this truly feels like the book she reckoned I was perhaps going to find a way to write.
It’s exhilarating in the highest degree.
Roosevelt said it is not the critic who counts but the man who is actually in the arena. I know lots of grumbling folks who judge and despise everything around them, who find fault, who look down on the world with a sense of their superiority, but the funny thing is that most of them have never done jack, if I may use so exalted a term. Here’s the paradox. There are hundreds of thousands, no doubt millions, of people who have talents and accomplishments that dwarf mine in any number of ways. I see myself as a minor figure in the world of history and belles lettres. But the people who have lorded it over me in the course of my life are all people who could not write a book, and meanwhile the people who are clearly superior to me (and they are legion) have all been unendingly generous. Hmmmm.
Whatever else is true for the rest of my life, I will always be able to say, “I wrote an important book on Meriwether Lewis.” I may have to add, “It is true that it sank without a trace,” or “I admit that it came stillborn into the world,” or “It was savaged by critics as few books have ever been savaged,” or “It was an act of almost immeasurable futility,” but I will still know that I sat down and wrote a long, loving, thoughtful, earnest book about something I regard as inherently important.
It is, I repeat, more fun to have written a book than to write one.